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Graduate Learning Communities: Transformation and Sustainability Dennis Lamb, Sharon Kabes, John Engstrom Southwest Minnesota State University dennis.lamb, sharon.kabes, john.engstrom{@smsu.edu} Abstract Qualitative and quantitative data collected from graduates of the Southwest Minnesota State University Master of Science in Education program examined the impact and sustainability of the learning environment, and their personal and professional development. The results showcased the success of the learning community model in facilitating personal and professional growth and transformation. It also examined the sustainability of the program, which has proven to also be equally as effective and positive. Research reported the following essential elements of the program, which include, but is not limited to: research-based decision making, peer collaboration, professional growth and empowerment, creating teacher leaders, and transformational learning, and transformational sustainability. The data collected from student surveys over a seven-year period indicated a high level of impact on their empowerment and transformational practices, as well as their personal and professional growth as an educator, which in turn, supports the sustainability of the program.

1. Introduction This paper will examine the impact of the learning community model of a Masters of Education program on seven elements: Research-based Decision Making, Peer Collaboration, Professional Growth and Empowerment, Creating Teacher Leaders, Transformational Learning, and Transformational Sustainability. Qualitative and quantitative data have been collected from program participants focusing on the evidence, which identifies the success of the seven elements related to teacher professional growth and leadership. Post graduate data in the form of reflective comments have also been collected. Since 1996, a Masters Learning Community Program delivered at a Midwestern university has been purposefully designed to foster professional growth of educators through the use of inquiry, self analysis, critical reflection, collaborative problem solving, peer review, and feedback. Meaningful collaborative experiences engage students in critical

examination and dialogue about educational theory and practice. As students build their understanding about teaching and learning, incorporate ideas and processes into their classrooms, and reflect on those experiences with colleagues, transformation of their practice occurs. There is also a corresponding development of teacher leadership. Collaboration and peer review are essential elements of the program. Collaborative cultures build the confidence teachers need to lead. In collaborative cultures, teachers support instructional improvement by others. They share ideas and build on those ideas, thus creating a new synergy. They evaluate new ideas that focus on student learning [13]. Students participate with the same cohort and faculty facilitators over the course of the two year program. Facilitators work to create a safe and positive learning environment using a constructivist approach. The facilitators incorporate a transformational leadership model, and thus, “provide the mechanism by which solutions are transferred into subsequent practice by building the capacity of the individuals and the group” [3]. Students are actively engaged in key constructivist components, which include independent learning, inquiry, self reflection, metacognition, collaborative problem solving, community building and peer review. As one student stated, “Every part of my teaching is better as a result of this program. My lessons incorporate a solid understanding of the brain & the body, constructivism & differentiation, outcomes & objectives, data collection & usage, and reflection. As a teacher leader, I am more confident and more involved” [22].

2. Data Collection Process To support the theoretical model of transformation, a quantitative and qualitative analysis was conducted to further examine the impact the learning communities were having on the participants. Data were collected over a period of seven years (2004-2010). In addition to the quantitative data, qualitative surveys were administered to recent graduates of the program, including graduates from the last seven years, in


which they were asked to provide, in narrative form, their opinions as they related to their personal and professional growth as a result of participation in the program. This data was used to examine the sustainability of changes in student learning and teaching practices as delivered in the master‟s degree program. For the purpose of this paper, seven specific elements, which serve as the premise for programmatic decision-making, as well as quantitative evidence of the program‟s success, are indentified. This article will examine the impact of the learning community model on Research-based Decision Making, Peer Collaboration, Professional Growth and Empowerment, Creating Teacher Leaders, Transformational Learning, and Transformational sustainability.

3. Research-Based Decision Making Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, a continuous stream of reform efforts have challenged schools and teachers to improve. Professional development in education has been described as an organized effort to change teachers with the expected result of improving their teaching practice and student learning [1]; [8]. Yet, in spite of this prolonged effort, teaching and student performance have remained largely unchanged [17]. According to one perspective, “A framework for professional practice offers the profession a means of communicating about excellence…It is through serious, professional conversations about the components comprising the framework [for professional practice] that the components are validated for any particular setting” [4]. It is within such a framework that the program fosters a valuesbased decision making process that advances and facilitates an enriching progression of self-discovery and growth that examines individual attitudes, beliefs, values, and dispositions of effective teaching practices. Most teachers are convinced that teaching skill is developed through classroom experience. Yet, there are limitations on the effectiveness of learning new and improved teaching skills from one‟s own experiences [20]. Organizational factors likely play a role in the resistance to significant operational change. One group contends the lack of meaningful staff development and training ultimately produces teachers who revert to familiar past practices, perpetuating the status quo in teaching [17]. It was reported that survey data collected from students over a seven-year cycle showed consistent

scores of 92.5 per cent or above when rating twelve elements central to the learning community model and demonstrated the effectiveness and impact of the learning community model. The quantitative results include elements of best practices: learning environment, effective teaching strategies, researchbased decision making, scaffolding, peer collaboration, learning community philosophy and professional growth, empowerment, reflective practitioner, inquiry, and transformational leader (change agent) [10]. The educators who enroll in the master‟s Learning Community program evolve into transformational educators, showcasing the foundational elements of effective teaching embedded into the learning community model. It is through this self-reflection process that beliefs, values, and attitudes centered on their teaching begin to become validated for them. As a professional, the integration of „best practices‟, which encompasses lessons and activities designed to promote brainbased learning, differentiation, constructivism, and learning styles, sustains their ability to construct a support system designed to facilitate and cultivate partnerships in the learning arena. From one student‟s perspective, it was shared that “The biggest change for me was learning that a significant part of being a practicing professional in the field of education means staying abreast of both validated and leading edge practices. It is just not enough to be great at what has always worked. A teacher should always be learning and growing to give the best to his or her students. The most significant change in my thinking was to base pedagogy on data. Data-driven decision making is the smartest way to make professional modifications” [21].

4. Peer Collaboration Collaboration with colleagues, within and outside grade specific levels, for example, helps promote and showcases their integration of effective teaching strategies. As stated by one recent graduate, “Teaching is completed in isolation, but I found that after my experience within this learning community that I have gained irreplaceable colleagues and friends who share the same passion and vision for their students. I no longer feel alone in my teaching because I know that I can contact any of the members from my learning community and gain insights, resources, and support. I think that is key to any professional‟s growth. As many of my classmates were also colleagues, we have worked together to implement new programs, encourage our


administration to listen to our ideas, and we have been asked for our input by administrators often. That connectedness and similar vision has totally allowed me to overcome negative comments from colleagues who may not understand new ideas or strategies I am implementing for my students, but I know that I can find support by those who understand the same research and theories we learned in this program” [21]. This intentional structuring mechanism provides time for them to validate and, if needed, modify or completely change their teaching styles. This assumes a metamorphic process, rather than demanding a drastic transformation, which could be more detrimental than assistive. It is not the intent to insist on wholesale change, but rather, and most importantly, this collaborative forum allows for a very direct and guided feedback system, which in turn will create an atmosphere that is not threatening or intimidating to those involved. Current research on professional development supports the importance of collaborative and collegial learning environments where colleagues reflect on learning strategies which have been implemented in the classroom [5]. Other researchers report that teachers who are involved in collaborative review of implemented practices demonstrate deeper understanding, which insures transferability of new learning to professional practice [6]. Experienced teachers are often revitalized as a result of their experiences. “This program has stretched me professionally and personally to heights I never thought I could attain. Furthermore, this experience has once again ignited the spark for the love of teaching I thought I had lost. The impact of what we‟ve done in our community has reached and will continue to reach out to our classrooms, to colleagues, our families, the lives of our students, and beyond” [21]. Regardless of the grade level or subject areas taught, educators have an opportunity to connect to „best practices‟ and support each others‟ development in their own teaching. Whether a beginning or veteran teacher, the engagement levels focus on supporting current teaching practices, taking them from where they are and stretching them further, which brings a new level of practicality and realism to their classrooms and learning situations.

5. Professional Growth and Empowerment The collaborative curriculum that has been designed is more than just a one-time exposure to content and information. The intentional structure of

the program provides ongoing opportunities to practice, reflect, and improve instruction through a spiraling approach of delivery. Professional development in education should be viewed as a process of transformation through critical reflection, with the goal of achieving a greater capacity to think and act differently [11]. The transformational interactions that result from their participation in the learning community help inspire and empower teachers and invigorate learning and teaching. It is through this collaboration and building of community that educators are engaged and begin to explore an approach to empowerment and transformational practices that support best teaching practices, encourages them to try new approaches, and gives them continuous opportunities to reflect, process, and examine their own growth and development as an educator. Transformational learning acknowledges that one‟s beliefs, values, and assumptions provide the perspective through which meaning of experience is formed. When this system of understanding is found to be inadequate for new and changing experiences, transformational learning can provide a new perspective. The newly adapted perspective is more refined and reflective, and leads to increasing capacity for learning and growth [16]. Three elements of teaching practices were surveyed throughout the two year program. The summative results, which included best practices, effective teaching strategies, and reflective practitioner, demonstrates the impact of the program had on the students‟ growth and development [10]. (SeeTable1). Table 1. Elements of Collaboration Fostered in LCs Elements

Total Percent

Opportunities for others to explain ideas Opportunities to dialogue with others Focuses on collaborative problem solving Emphasizes professional scholarship

99.0 99.0 99.0 98.0

6. Creating Teacher Leaders Through the framework established within the delivery model, educators who enroll in the program experience several foundational elements that facilitate their personal and professional growth. This increased capacity for learning, growth, and development enhances students‟ abilities to reconstruct and transform themselves as educational leaders. The goal of the program is to create


conditions that lead to significant change in the teachers‟ values, beliefs, and actions as a professional educator. This is in contrast to the in-service training and workshops attended by educators, which seldom result in more than a shallow or temporary change in knowledge. One student perspective supports this in reflecting the impact of the program on her leadership when she stated, “I have shared lesson plans with colleagues continuously since my time at SMSU. I have been asked to speak at and organize staff development meetings. I have served on a variety of committees and panels. I have sought out individuals from the community for various uses in my classes. Most importantly, I have stood up for what I wholeheartedly believe are vital aspects for the success of students and staff at my school” [21]. Student surveys reported the impact of the elements of leadership fostered in the learning communities [10]. (See Table 2). Table 2. Elements of Leadership Fostered Elements Dialogue with other students Collaborative problem-solving Facilitators make LC emotionally safe

Total Percent 99.0 98.0 98.0

7. Transformational Learning Transformational learning involves the process of examining, questioning, validating, and revising one‟s assumptions to better fit with one‟s new perceptions [2]; [12]. This ability to reflect on our own, as well as others‟ assumptions, is inherent in the process of transformational learning [15]; [14]. It was stated that “central to this transformative process of learning is critical reflection and testing new meanings through rational discourse” [16]. Schön, as cited in [18], argues that the “potential of transformative learning for graduate and continuing professional education lies in its ability to encourage „reflection-in-action‟”, which leads to improved professional practice and greater capacity for further gains. When the learner‟s system of understanding is found to be inadequate for new and changing experiences, transformational learning can provide a new perspective. The newly adapted perspective is more refined and reflective and leads to increasing capacity for learning and growth [16]. Many teacher educators and leaders are now beginning to focus on teachers‟ professional development as a means to improve education, suggesting that school improvement is linked to the

quality of teachers‟ learning on two levels. First, teacher learning is an important component in the improvement of the broader educational system. Also, in terms of impact on student achievement, the quality of teachers‟ learning is significant [7]. The emerging approach to education reform emphasizes teacher education and development [17]; [8]. What is needed is a new approach to teacher development that focuses on the needs of teachers, and is delivered in a meaningful way. Emerging efforts to link graduate teacher professional development to both practical and personal knowledge, as well as the more traditional disciplinebased knowledge, reflects the natural convergence of constructivism and transformational learning [18]. This study focused on the professional development of teachers within a graduate learning community and the elements of adult learning inherent in the process. In examining teacher professional development, it is noted that research on the relationship between time and resources devoted to teacher professional development outcomes is mixed [7]. What seems to be more important is the effectiveness in which professional development time is organized, structured, and directed. Professional development in education should be viewed as a process of transformation through critical reflection, with the goal of achieving a greater capacity to think and act differently [11]. The transformation which takes place in the teachers also promotes growth and understanding in the teacher as a leader. “This program has challenged, stretched and inspired me to become a leader. I can hardly put in words the direct impact this program has had on me professionally. I am stepping out and taking leadership in not only my classroom, but among my staff and district. This has given me affirmation about important decisions I make in my school. I have grown more than I would have ever imagined” [21].

8. Transformation Sustainability Qualitative data in the form of summative reflections from students are regularly collected. Recently, all of the summative reflections of 55 students in two learning communities reported growth in thinking about learning, in reflection, and in teaching. All 55 respondents described themselves as different and better teachers and learners since the start of their program [9]. Students consistently reported that they had become more reflective about their teaching. All of them described how they had learned about themselves as learners, as thinkers, and


as collaborators who had grown professionally. The responses mirror those collected from students since 1998. Incremental changes have occurred and transformation of their teaching and learning was developing. This gradual transformation was observed in student formative reflections. The feedback reflected the transformation of students in their thinking and in their practice and also supported the effectiveness and impact of the learning community program. Examples of reflective responses have been selected to demonstrate how that transformation is reported by students. Further examination of the impact of the learning community program demonstrates that graduates have benefitted and grown, both personally and professionally. Thus, an element of transformational learning is fostered within the learning community program, and is recognized by our constituents as it relates to their own growth and impact on the field of education. The personal and professional development seen in students reflects a sustained, evolving process. As the researchers examined student responses, multiple responses support this change. For example, one student replied, “The realization that as an individual, I have the ability to impact change on a larger scale” [22]. This was a common theme shared by many others. Another student reflected on this by stating, “In our learning community, we had open-ended opportunities to share and learn from others. We were able to learn and grow from each other and attempt new challenges together. We learned to have a strong voice in how education is run and understand why it is run and designed the way it is” [22]. Getting educators to think more holistically about education is not as easy as it seems, as the tendency is to focus more on their present teaching environment, classes, and strategies, and losing site of the „bigger picture.‟ Here‟s how one student summed it up, “I am a more conscientious teacher. I think more in light of the bigger picture especially in trying to meet the needs of each of my students. I am also more aware of educational policies and the American educational system” [22]. Multiple responses supported the importance of developing relationships through the learning community process. As summarized by the following statement, “The relationships had the greatest impact on me personally and professionally. The people, their ideas and the dialogues that resulted changed me and my teaching”, [22] this supports the importance of establishing an environment where open and honest dialogue can exist, without the fear

of repercussions or fallout for sharing one‟s opinions relating to change. In terms of impacting the role of becoming a change agent, this student sums it up by saying, “I found that some of the ways I was teaching now has research to back up the benefits of engaging learners in a new way. Constructivism was something I had already been utilizing in my classroom, but was not labeling it as such. I found that the research I did throughout my two years offered me stronger justifications to continue group work/collaboration, choices, writing instruction in new ways, and ways to engage students by continuing to offer them choices--all of these concepts were ones I personally believed in, but found validity and support for within my masters program. The other significant change is the leadership role that I have taken or been asked to take for my district. Our district encourages involvement in our professional development committees and encourages input on new ideas or topics we can address K-12. I have taken an active role in this committee and [have] been asked to present and do training because of my background and research from this masters” [22]. Another key element that advocates professional connections to professional growth is related to the implementation and structure provided through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, which guide the student‟s portfolio. Artifacts are generated to showcase how educators enrolled in our program are making the connection to what effective teachers do well and how they see themselves growing, both personally and professionally. Another common theme generated by multiple students is represented in the following statement, “The professional portfolio that was created, using the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, had the greatest impact on my own personal learning and growth. The goals I created were aligned with the Standards...and pushed me much further than I thought I could go. To be challenged is great, to be CHANGED is greater! That process really developed my professional practice as a teacher” [22]. These descriptors shared through student reflections are indicative of the type of effect the program is having on the growth and transformation of learning community members, which has also proven to be sustainable over time.

9. Conclusion


The most telling set of data collected over the last seven years is that the sustainability of the transformations in teaching and leadership have been maintained. A purposefullly designed learning community links learners and the learning process to each other. Together, by designing a transformational learning evironment and the right learner, the sustainability that allows students to interactively participate in a process of growth and change has been invaluable. 10. References [1] Angelo, T. (2001). Doing faculty development as if we value learning most: Transformative guidelines from research to practice. To Improve the Academy, 19, 97-112. Bolton, MA: Anker. [2] Cranton, P. (1994). Self-directed and transformative instructional development. Journal of Higher Education, 65(60), Nov/Dec 1994. Ohio State University Press. [3] Cunningham, W.G. & Cordeiro, P.A. (2009). Educational leadership: A bridge to improved practice. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson. [4] Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. [5] Darling-Hammond, L. & Richardson, N. (2009). Teacher learning: What matters? Educational Leadership, 66(5), 46-55. [6] Fogarty, R., & Pete, B. (2009/2010, December/January). Professional learning 101: A syllabus of seven protocols. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(4), 32-34. [7] Guskey, T. R. (June, 2003). What makes professional development effective? Phi Delta Kappan 84(10), 748-750. [8] Guskey, T. (1986). Staff development and the process of teacher change. Educational Researcher, 15(5), 5-12. [9] Kabes, S. & Engstrom, J. (2010). Student reported growth: Success story of a master of science in education learning community program. Insight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 5, 75-87. [10] Kabes, S., Lamb, D. & Engstrom, J. (2010). Graduate learning communities: Transforming educators. Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 7(5), 47-55.

[11] Kerka, S. (2003). Does adult educator professional development make a difference? Myths and realities. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. (ED482331) [12] King, K.P. (2004). Understanding educators as adult learners in transformation: Facing the professional development challenges of educational technology. Journal of School Leadership, 14(2) pp. 153-170. [13] Kohm, B. & Nance, B. (2009). Creating collaborative cultures. Educational Leadership, 67(2), 67-72. [14] Kroth, M. & Boverie, P. (2000). Life mission and adult learning. Adult Education Quarterly 50(2), 134-146. [15] Merriam, S. B. (2004). The role of cognitive development in Mezirow's transformational learning theory. Adult Education Quarterly, 55(1), 60-68. [16] Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. [17] National Staff Development Council (2006). What a school leader needs to know: Meeting basics. The Learning Principal, 1(6) 4. [18] Nesbit, T. (2001). Extending graduate education to non-traditional learners. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 49(1), 2-10. [19] Norris, C., Barnett, B., Basom, M., and Yerkes, D. (2002). The learning community: A model for developing educational leaders. New York: Teacherâ€&#x;s College Press. [20] Nuthall, G. (2004). Relating classroom teaching to student learning: A critical analysis of why research has failed to bridge the theory-practice gap. Harvard Educational Review, 74(3), 273-306. [21] Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) (2004 - 2010). [Graduate program surveys: Facilitator Evaluation; Learning Environment Survey; Professional Development Survey]. Unpublished raw data. [22] Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) (2010). [Post Graduate Learning Community Survey]. Unpublished raw data.


CICE Toronto 2011 Paper.Submitted Copy  

Abstract To support the theoretical model of transformation, a quantitative and qualitative analysis was conducted to further examine the im...

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